If all goes as planned and the construction of the proposed Oshkosh Food Co-op begins this summer, it’ll be a major milestone in a project that began nearly a decade ago on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus.
The years-long push by the volunteer-run organization, which now is closing in on its goal of opening a community-owned grocery store between Main Street and the UW Oshkosh campus, traces back to a pitch contest launched by sociology professor Paul Van Auken.
It was in 2011 that Van Auken was starting the Creating a Strong Community Contest. He made an effort to work with students on ideas they could pitch for a chance at seed money, and he connected with Bridgette Weber ’14, who then was working toward an environmental studies degree.
Van Auken knew Weber from her involvement with a student gardening group and thought she might be interested in the contest. He even had an idea she could run with.
“I already knew she had this interest in food,” Van Auken remembered. “I think I probably sent her an email and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about a co-op? You want to talk about this?’
“So we talked and I explained to her the contest and how it would be a good impetus to actually make this thing happen, and why not give it a shot? If you get the seed money, see where it goes. … She, without hesitation, said yes.”
Weber took the idea and ran with it. Sure enough, the pitch wound up winning the first-ever Creating a Strong Community Contest in 2012. The $1,750 in seed money turned out to be the financial beginnings of what’s now the Oshkosh Food Co-op, a project legally founded in 2013 that that now boasts nearly 1,200 member-owners.
The group is now closing in on the deadline for the $1.6 million capital campaign launched last year that, if successful, will mean a physical location for the Oshkosh Food Co-op will be just months away from reality.
Just days before the deadline
As of Wednesday night, the group had announced nearly $1.3 million raised. The signed lease in the proposed BRIO building is contingent on hitting the $1.6 million mark by the end of the month. With a few weeks to go, the group was feeling good—but surely there’s more work to be done.
The long march from an idea for a pitch contest to this point included Weber leading the way as the first board president. In the earliest stages of planning, Weber connected with Stephanie Gyldenvand ’02, and Brenda Haines MPA ’09, to help get things rolling. That was on recommendation of Van Auken, who said of Gyldenvand and Haines: “They kick butt and they get things done.”
Now, more than eight years after that first triumph, Haines is president and overseeing the operation in this critical stretch run. She’s also an Oshkosh business owner who cofounded the marketing company Blue Door Consulting.
While so much has taken place since the first seeds were planted, Haines said it has all happened because of that initial collaboration at UW Oshkosh.
“Absent Bridgette (Weber) and Paul (Van Auken) having that conversation, I don’t think any of us would be doing this right now,” she said.
Strong connections throughout
As the project has grown, so too has its relationship with the UWO community.
Associate marketing professor Melissa Bublitz helped the organizers with a community survey to help them figure out what the people of Oshkosh were interested in when it comes to a food co-op. That helped the organizing body—which now consists of an elected nine-member board of directors—shape the project to the community’s needs and wants.
Samantha Larson, an assistant public administration professor at UWO, is relatively new to the area but has been on board since 2018. She’s currently serving as vice president.
“I can remember seeing co-op yard signs everywhere when I first came to Oshkosh for my on-campus interview in 2017,” Larson said. “I was very intrigued by what seemed to be a strong, local movement.”
As a transplant to UWO, she said the promise of the co-op, and the energy that comes with community projects like it, makes Oshkosh a more appealing place to live and work.
Peter Westort is a retired accounting professor who spent 12 years at UWO. Now finding himself with more free time, he joined on as treasurer.
“It’s really commitment to the community,” said Westort, a Maine native who worked at several other schools before joining the UWO faculty. “It’s just kind of a personal view of the world. “… I had a skill set that I thought the co-op might be able to use so I volunteered to help out.”
Van Auken also served on the board until 2018. Now, like many others who’ve played a part to get to this point, he’s simply a member.
Seeing a bright future
Assuming the fundraising goal is met, the store will take over a 8,000-square-foot space in a new building planned for the corner of Jackson Street and Pearl Avenue. It also would mean that neighborhood near the UWO campus would no longer be what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert—meaning residents are more than a mile away from a grocery store.
The full-service grocery store would be well within walking distance from campus and could influence how students eat. The plan is for 20 percent of the co-op’s goods to be supplied from local farmers or producers and for the produce section to be robust.
The operation also could provide employment opportunities for students.
“UW Oshkosh has been such a leader in sustainability and we’ll certainly have jobs available,” Haines said. “There’s potential for students who really care about the food system and where food comes from to be able to work while they’re in college in an organization that cares about those things too.”
The co-op and UWO have always been linked. Haines said once the store opens, she expects there to be lines of communication between the two entities to explore how to build on that relationship.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities to be developed,” Haines said. “That’s what I think is so exciting about this.”